The more things change…

by abbamoses

In the waning years of the Byzantine Empire, the emperor Manuel Palaiologos gave this advice to his son John about what we would now call “Ecumenical Dialogue”:

The infidels are very worried that we might unite and come to agreement with the Christians of the west, for they sense that if this occurred it would be very harmful to their own interests. Therefore my advice with regard to the holding of councils is this: go on studying and investigating the project as long as you can, especially when you have need of something to frighten the Turks. But do not really try to put it into practice; for in my opinion our people are not in the frame of mind to discover a way of uniting with the Latins or to put ourselves out to create an atmosphere of peace, concord and mutual understanding, unless it were through hope that the Latins would revert to the positions in which we all found ourselves originally. But this is a virtual impossibility; and I fear that if we are not careful a worse schism may come about and then we shall be left defenceless before the infidel. (Source: Speake, Renewal in Paradise, p. 111)

Sad to say, the Emperor John did not follow his father’s advice, but took part in the infamous Council of Florence (1438–9), which produced a “Union” between the Orthodox Church and Rome that was universally rejected in the Orthodox east.

After a 500-year lull, the Ecumenical Dialogues have sprung up again. A circle of Orthodox and Roman Catholic meeting-goers — what might be called the Ecumenical Dialogue Establishment — holds a round of workshops, consultations, symposia, and paper sessions that have been going on for decades now. Occasionally there is a well-publicized meeting with the Pope (see photo).

It’s hard not to notice that, after all this time, the participants still seem to be doing a little dance that consists of discussing Papal primacy and the filioque, finding some tentative points of agreement, then issuing a communique saying that the talks were fruitful and union is desirable. The vast gulf, dogmatic and spiritual, that would remain between the two bodies if there ever were an agreement on “primacy” or the filioque, is never brought up. To the great distress of many Orthodox spectators, the impression is given that once these two matters are cleared up, union will be at hand. (Sometimes it is hinted that there are no dogmatic issues to be resolved — that only old grudges, bad feelings, and dead traditions hold the two bodies apart.)

In the end, I think these consultations are more annoying than genuinely worrisome. It seems to me that, if any Patriarchate or Council actually proclaimed a union with Rome, such a union would be rejected quickly, furiously and massively by the Orthodox people. Thus the Church would be preserved, though only at the cost of terrible turmoil.

Why have all these consultations produced so little movement? I like to think that the Orthodox hierarchy has in effect listened to the words of Emperor Manuel, and is reaping the political benefits of the Dialogue Dance without any real intention of coming to a conclusion. This is the most charitable interpretation I can put on the current picture.